Can Australian Catholicism Save Itself From Its Ultra-Conservative Forces?


Led by George Pell, the Catholic Church in Australia has lost its way. Hugh Harris believes there’s only one path to reform.

The leaked allegations of child abuse against Cardinal George Pell aren’t surprising, nor should they particularly diminish anyone’s opinion of him. Simply, there’s no room below rock-bottom. No need then for a new Tim Minchin song, or any reappraisal at all. Whether they have basis in fact remains to be seen.

The only certainty is that, regardless of the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, or the outcome of police investigations, Pell will never face a punishment commensurate with his failures.

This is just the latest in a series of recent public relations disasters for the Catholic Church. The aftershocks will reverberate for some time. But amidst these ructions, Australian Catholicism might find a ray of hope in casting out some of its more vocal and acidulous conservative colleagues. A more progressive and non-partisan church leadership would be a good thing – and dare I say, one more in line with the Christian values espoused by Jesus.

Pell cited health grounds to avoid appearing in person for the hearings of the Royal Commission. Given the year-long investigation into multiple allegations of abuse against him by the Victoria Police SANO taskforce, many will conclude he had other reasons for refusing to come. Pell cannot be compelled to answer questions whilst he remains in Rome.

It’s not the first time allegations of sexual abuse have been levelled at Pell. In 2002, a church-inquiry found insufficient evidence to uphold the charge Pell molested a boy on a Phillip Island holiday camp in the early 1960’s. In contrast to Pell’s claim that he was “exonerated”, the Southwell inquiry concluded the testimony of both Pell and his accuser were credible, but there was insufficient cause to establish the allegation.

Having affixed his wagon to conservative forces, Pell’s own troubles exacerbate the steady worsening of community sentiment towards conservative Christianity.

(IMAGE: Jody Claborn, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Jody Claborn, Flickr)

The same sex marriage debate continues to strain the tolerance of everyday Australians. Hard-line, anachronistic views on homosexuality evoke public ire and even derision.

The same can be said about ultra-conservative views on abortion, the role of women, contraception, and euthanasia. Due to the disproportionate power granted to some lobby groups, abortion and euthanasia remain illegal in most States of Australia.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) recently requested the temporary lifting of hate-speech laws to allow a “rigorous” same sex marriage debate. Notwithstanding the fact that the request cannot be actioned due to the division between State and Federal laws, it’s an ominous portent of things to come. The ACL clearly intends to prosecute the same-sex marriage debate using rhetoric which the law would usually regard as vilification.

The antediluvian views of the ACL are increasingly out of step with modern Christians, the majority of whom support same sex marriage. The backlash from Nick and Sarah Jensen’s bizarre threat to divorce was one indication. And conservative protests against a same-sex school formal spectacularly backfired when crowdfunding reached an amazing $36k.

Traditionalist Archbishops and media commenters exhibit the view from inside the bubble of privilege when they refer to critics as “totalitarian secularists”, or to same-sex marriage campaigners as “oddballs”.

The pity is not so much the erosion of Catholic values, but the fragmentation of the church.

The church contains a lot of wonderful people. Thousands of Australians perform countless hours of unpaid community work. Some teach at Catholic schools, some work at Catholic Universities, whilst others service the community in aged care, or in social services alleviating poverty.

None of these good people deserve to have their work sullied by the scandals and prejudices of hidebound die-hards.

It’s also a pity for lapsed Catholics and cultural Christians. And for those who identify as Christian, but don’t necessarily observe the rituals and doctrines. Christian values no longer signify something unambiguously positive. The benefits of social cohesion and shared values provided by religion are largely a thing of the past in Australia. Fewer than 8 per cent of Australians still attend church.

The 2016 Census will likely record less Catholics than the last one. In fact, there’ll be more non-believers than Catholics. For the Catholic Church to recover from the child sex scandal and the trend away from faith, it will need to win the hearts of young people.

We’ve seen sympathetic government policies, including the National Chaplaincy programme, and the ongoing religious education policy, aimed at promoting Christianity by allowing into the classroom. But if anything, it’s having the reverse effect. Young people are more irreligious than ever before.

In attaching itself to power, Catholicism has become a lapel badge of the elite. But to appeal to its real constituents it needs to get back in touch with its core teachings.

(IMAGE: paul bica, Flickr).
(IMAGE: paul bica, Flickr).

Contrast Conservative economic and social policies with the teachings of Jesus. Compare the wealth of the Catholic Church with its creed. The church must become nonpartisan to become relevant again. It will not succeed unless it finds a way to reconcile itself to modern values, and understand equality in a truly inclusive manner.

Protestants know that change is possible. Christian doctrines must become more malleable and sympathetic to modern ideals, whilst retaining the core values of charity, love and mercy. We’ve seen these values on display in recent Anglican offers to provide sanctuary for refugees.

Pell won’t be compelled to come down from his citadel. The palatial confines of the Vatican will remain his sanctuary, whilst child sex abuse victims continue to pay vicariously for his sins.

Sadly, there’s something very Christian about all that. Meanwhile, the nightmares and anguish of victims goes on. When will they be delivered with justice?

Hugh Harris board member of the Rationalist Society of Australia, and writes a blog called The Rational Razor.